College football teams rarely have symmetrical schedules but Duke has the closest thing to it this season.
The Blue Devils can split it up in six two-game chunks: the first two games at home, two away, two at home, two away, two at home and the final two away.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe said it’s demanding schedule — always a coach’s refrain in preseason — but in truth the Blue Devils could be pressed to match last season’s 8-5 finish.
“This is the most talented team we’ve had but we’ve got to mature quickly,” Cutcliffe said. “We know the schedule is tough.”
Easiest chunk: The first two games.
The Blue Devils, even if quarterback Thomas Sirk is not at full speed and held out of the game, should handle N.C. Central in the Sept. 3 opener (Duke won 55-0 last season). Next is an early ACC opener against Wake Forest, a team the Devils have beaten the past four seasons, albeit just 27-21 last year.
Hardest chunk: Possibly the last two.
After their home finale against North Carolina on Nov. 10, always an emotional game, the Devils close the regular season on the road against Pitt and Miami. November was not a kind month for Duke in 2015 — the Devils were 1-3 with the win over Wake Forest.
Pivotal chunk: The first two road games.
In back-to-back weeks, the Devils will face Northwestern on Sept. 17 and then Notre Dame. Last year’s 19-10 loss to Northwestern at home still aches for the Devils and was Duke’s only loss in the first seven games. Duke has faced Notre Dame just once since 1966, losing 28-7 in a November 2007 road game in Ted Roof’s last season as the Devils’ coach.
A 2-0 start, and at least a split of the Northwestern-Notre Dame swing would set Duke up pretty nicely for the next two games — at home against Virginia and Army.
Cutcliffe said he enjoys road games and the challenge of playing them, and the Devils have six of those challenges this season. There’s also the matter of facing Louisville (Oct. 14) and Georgia Tech (Oct.29) in consecutive away games, although with a bye week in-between.
Toughest turnaround: The first two games of November.
The Blue Devils will host Virginia Tech on Nov. 5, then have North Carolina coming into Wade Stadium the following Thursday for an ESPN game.
No one at Duke has forgotten last year’s UNC game and the 66-31 embarrassment in Chapel Hill in early November. But the preparation time for the Tar Heels will be short.
A best-case scenario for Duke probably is 8-4 and worst-case 4-8, so a 6-6 finish may be a good compromise of a prediction.